Four easy steps to a faster Mac

FinderIconYosemiteXKeeping your computer running at the speeds it ran at when you bought it may seem like a futile task, and often people just accept the fact that their computers will eventually become laggy and pause. However, your Mac’s hardware is functionally no different than it was when you purchased it. This means unless your Mac is over 5 years old and is missing capability required by the software you run, then it should perform reasonably similar to when you purchased it.

That being said, slowdowns may occur from a number of configuration problems with the software and any system add-ons you have installed, and while you can spend time troubleshooting the details of your specific configuration, there are some general approaches you can take to make a notable difference in your Mac’s performance.

1. Close programs and windows

As you use your system, you may progressively open more programs and program windows. While in recent versions of OS X Apple has implemented ways to prioritize foremost windows and pause those in the background, each window will take up resources and may slow features like Expose and even dragging a window around on your screen. Therefore, if you find the fluidity of your interface has somewhat diminished, then try closing tabs, windows, and quitting programs you have open.

Keep in mind that in OS X, quitting most programs requires you to explicitly send a Quit command, so if you are more familiar with Windows where closing a window will often quit a program, then be sure you check the OS X Dock for an indicator light or dot under the programs that are still open. You can then right-click their icons and choose the contextual option to quit the ones you are not currently using.

2. Clean up your system

Along with managing open programs and windows, other clutters on your Mac can degrade its performance. First, keep your Mac’s hard drive about 10% free, as this will allow ample room for the system to manage memory and cache temporary files to improve performance. As part of this, go through your Applications folder and remove programs you have not used in a while, and do the same for documents you may just be storing on your drive. Consider copying these relatively unused items to an external drive or two, in order to only keep items you immediately need on your drive.

Finally, try clearing up the folders you use regularly, including your Desktop. While it may be more of the psychological effect of being organized, cleaning up clutter on your Desktop and in your home folder will allow you to more efficiently get things done.

Finder Status bar

The Finder status bar will show you the space available on the current drive. You can also see hard drive using by choosing “About This Mac” from the Apple menu.

3. Reboot your system

When was the last time you gave your system a full restart instead of just closing its lid or otherwise putting it to sleep? Try quitting all programs you have open, then restart your Mac and see whether this shows any improvement.

4. Maintenance?

In many cases, running maintenance tasks on your Mac are not needed, but then again Apple has maintenance routines built in for checking system files, managing logs, and otherwise keeping your system tidy. While for the most part manually running regular maintenance tasks will not show much long-term improvement, there are some quick approches you can take to ensure nothing is wrong with your Mac’s hardware and setup.

Disk Utility in OS X

Choosing your hard drive in Disk Utility will show space usage information. You can then run First Aid to ensure the drive’s formatting is correct.

First, try rebooting and holding the Shift key down when you hear your Mac’s boot chimes. This will load Safe Mode, and in doing so run a number of system checks (you can immediately reboot into normal mode to restore full functionality). In addition, check your Mac’s hard drive health using Disk Utility. While this is done when booting to Safe Mode, a First Aid check in Disk Utility will show you detailed output about your hard drive’s health, and also give you information on your hard drive’s built-in diagnostics (or S.M.A.R.T. statistics).

Lastly, update your Mac’s software. While it is always possible that software updates could break functionality, for the most part they fix bugs and offer stability improvements. Therefore, be sure you have a full system backup that you can restore to, but then be sure to install any software updates for OS X and third-party programs you have installed.

If you are experiencing slowdowns and these approaches do not seem to help, then further troubleshooting will be needed.

7 thoughts on “Four easy steps to a faster Mac

  1. MaX

    I have tried to post the message below, yet eventually does not show. No error message is issued. I guess it was because it contained two web addresses. I will change them now and try again…

    Thanks for the article. Questions:

    1. I understand that when trying to boot in Safe mode, it is not necessary to login. Just rebooting in normal way (no safe mode) when the username and password window shows is enough. Right?

    2. Apple Disk Utility does not allow to repair permissions in Mac OS X 10.11 El Capitan. But is it good to repair permissions with applications like Cocktail (via Pilot)?
    www dot maintain dot se/cocktail

    3. Last but not least, in my experience, the most important thing to do is to rebuild the directory with the top application for that: DiskWarrior.
    www dot alsoft dotcom

    1. MaX

      Oops! Now both show. Sorry about that (I refreshed the page twice yet the message did not show before posting the second one!). Besides, my login credentials had been wiped out when trying to post the second message. Weird.

      1. MaX

        And last but not least, I cannot edit my message above or delete the second redundant one. This is a positive criticism for this otherwise great site. It would be great if editing messages was allowed.

  2. Jim Royal

    Good advice, but I think I must take issue with the principle that you should keep the boot drive at least 10% free. It’s perfectly true that filling the drive further will hurt performance severely. But for older systems running Yosemite or El Capitan, a spinning disk drive that is anywhere near 90% full will result in a system that is unbearably slow.

    I have experience with older iMacs and a Mac Pro that are running the latest software. The most recent versions of the Mac OS seem to be extraordinarily disk-intensive, which causes tremendous slowdowns when the hard disk is fragmented and more than 50% full.

    To solve these slowdowns, I move iTunes and photo libraries off the boot drive, onto a second drive. This usually leaves the boot drive far less than half full. Then, I defragment the drive. This process doesn’t even need a special defragmentation tool. A backup utility such as Carbon Copy Cloner, which can make a bootable clone of the drive will do nicely. I clone the boot drive onto an external disk, and then clone it back. Presto, a defragmented boot drive.

    The result is an amazing increase in performance on older machines. Keeping the boot drive mostly empty and defragmented keeps the system running quickly. This wasn’t nearly as much of an issue with earlier versions of Mac OS, but it seems to be really important now, on older systems.

    (Newer systems with SSD and Fusion drives do not require this advice, and performing this process on new systems can actually harm the SSD. So don’t do it on newer Macs. )

    My aging Mac Pro (early 2008) is an excellent example. Wanting to economize, I replaced the boot drive, not with an SSD, but with a 600 GB Velociraptor, which was far less expensive. This old system is running El Cap, and it just flies, so long as I keep only the OS and applications on the boot drive, and keep the drive optimized. It’s a bit like tuning an old race car, I suppose. But it really extends the life of older systems.

    1. B. Jefferson Le Blanc

      On my old Mac Pro I put most of my data off on extra internal drives, including my backups. Supporting four hard drives was (is) one of the old Mac Pro’s major advantages. The benefit of having data on drives other than your boot drive is that it saves wear and tear on the drive by cutting down on reads and writes as you manipulate your files. That said, the system and your apps will still use the boot drive for cache and virtual memory swap files. For these the more contiguous free space that’s available the better. Free space fragmentation, like file fragmentation, requires additional seek operations and, depending on the severity of the fragmentation, can really hammer a drive and impact performance.

      I have a 1TB Fusion Drive in my iMac and, despite what many people think, OS X does not prevent fragmentation. If you update files, apps and the system, bits and pieces will be scattered around the drive—because the new versions often don’t fit in the old spaces, Neh? I now use iDefrag to examine and sometimes defragment my drives. It shows both the kind and distribution of files on a drive and those that have been fragmented (in bright red, so you can’t miss them). And only a limited portion of the stuff on my Fusion drive is located on the relatively small (120GB) SSD. If all you have in your Mac is an SSD, fragmentation is far less important, though not insignificant.

      As for leaving at least 10% of a drive free, the value of that 10% will also depend on fragmentation. Ten percent distributed in a hundred (or a thousand) bits and pieces is highly inefficient on an HDD. On an SSD, not so much, though even there it will require a lot of extra pages in and out and have at least some affect on performance. The more overhead involved in using a drive (and a computer), the less efficient it will be. To borrow an old phrase, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

      And even SSDs are subject to wear and tear. They support a finite number of rewrites before blocks begin to fail. That’s what trimming is for—to cut off failed or failing areas of the SSD in order to preserve data integrity. Using additional drives for storing data can be even more important on a computer with an SSD boot drive. Indeed, SSDs take us back to the days when internal drives were low capacity and external drives an everyday necessity. Fortunately, external drives are now physically much smaller than they once were so carrying around a few is far less burdensome than it once was. The problem is, of course, that modern Mac laptops have a dearth of ports to connect them to. Portability can reach a point of diminishing returns.

      Additional factors in performance, besides the condition of the boot drive, include available RAM and CPU cores and clock speed. As computers get smaller, particularly laptops, these factors can be quite constrained. As usual, how important these issues are will depend on the type of work you do on the computer.

      Anyway, Topher, thanks for giving me the chance to spout off once more. 😉

  3. gskibum

    Ha ha I’m notorious for having 50-60 or even more pages open in Safari. It can sometimes have a wee bit of an impact on performance. 🙂

  4. Yorgos

    Are apps that are lodged on the menubar and not the dock deemed as open programs? Does it follow that the less number of menubar apps running equal a more fluid, faster system performance?

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